Brandon Phillips isn't as old as Ken Griffey Jr. or Adam Dunn. He isn't as young as Jay Bruce or Joey Votto. But in only this third full major-league season, he has emerged as the spirit of the Cincinnati Reds.
Phillips, who turns 27 on June 28, is an accomplished player, one of only two second basemen to produce 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a season. He is also more lively than the entire New York Mets roster combined.
The milestone twins, Ken Griffey Jr. and Manny Ramirez, will draw heavy attention when the Reds host the Boston Red Sox this weekend. So will Reds right-hander Edinson Volquez, who takes his major-league best 1.56 ERA into Saturday's game (MLB on FOX, 3:55 p.m. ET).
The irrepressible Phillips, though, will be difficult to overlook. How often do you see a 6-foot, 196-pound cleanup hitter, much less one who vows to become the best second baseman in the sport?
Phillips first attained prominence when he was included in a blockbuster trade for pitcher Bartolo Colon on June 27, 2002, going from Montreal to Cleveland with left-hander Cliff Lee, center fielder Grady Sizemore and first baseman Lee Stevens.
But Phillips never caught on with the Indians, and eventually was sent to the Reds for minor-league right-hander Jeff Stevens at the start of the 2006 season — a move that Indians general manager Mark Shapiro has since admitted was a mistake.
Phillips shared his thoughts on his rise to stardom, Griffey's 600th home run and the emergence of Bruce in a recent Q-and-A with FOXSports.com.
Question: Griffey and Dunn soon could be traded or lost to free agency. What will that mean for you?
Answer: Dunn and Griffey, they're (like) the captains of the team. I'm just sitting back observing, seeing how things are. Hopefully they'll be here as long as possible. But if something does happen, I'm going to take over that role.
I'm still learning. But if something does happen, they've just got to pass the torch. And I think that torch will get passed to me.
Question: Are you OK with that?
Answer: Why wouldn't I be? I see myself as a person to get people hyped up. I can do crazy things to get 'em hyped up. I know my place. Griffey and Dunn do it right now. But I know my spot — when to do some crazy things, when to get the team up. Our time will come.
Question: What was it like seeing Griffey's 600th home run?
Answer: It was a beautiful thing. I've never experienced anything like that. Just being part of something special, something only six people have done, I'll never forget it. It's something I can tell my kids about — I was on deck when Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 600th home run.
Question: What was his reaction?
Answer: "It's about time." To tell you the truth, that's what it looked like to me. He knew he was going to hit it on the road. And when a guy hits 600 home runs, you've got to believe him.
Question: Bruce is at the other end of it, just starting his career. What are your thoughts on him?
Answer: I know how it feels to have the hype. I had it when I was coming up. He was the Minor League Player of the Year last year. For someone to achieve that, he must be doing something right. But he's just playing baseball. I hope the hype doesn't go to his head like it did with me.
Question: How did that happen?
Answer: I was a young guy, called up to the big leagues when I was 21. Guys were like, "You're the future. You're the man, the biggest part of the (Colon) trade. You're going to be here." Listening to that stuff, guys saying that I was going to be here, not get sent down ... I got caught up in it.
But it was a different story with me. The coaching staff didn't really like me over there with Cleveland Indians. We love Bruce over here. When the players on the team and the coaching staff love you instead of someone trying to change you ... if they just let Bruce play, he can be one of the best players in baseball.
I feel the same way about Joey Votto. Honestly, I feel that he's the best player on the team. He can become one of the best first basemen in the game. That's how I feel right now. He's the real deal.
Question: Why did the Indians coaches not like you?
Answer: I have a lot of flair to my game. I do like to have fun. I've always been like that, since I was a little kid. I understand that it's a business, but I've still got to have fun.
The best way to have fun is go out there knowing you can play, knowing you're the best player on the team. If I think that I'm the best player on the team, I'm going to have some fun.
You've got to trick yourself. If you ask Griffey, he would say he's the best player still. There's no way he can beat me in basketball, bowling, tennis. But he tricks himself into thinking that he can. That's what it's all about — knowing you can play.
The Indians didn't like me smiling all the time. Sometimes when I mess up, I smile. That's my way of showing I'm human, that it's not going to bother me. I'll just smile and say, "I'm going to get 'em."
I'm just playing baseball. I could be at war. I could be a bum. But it's beautiful to know that I'm playing the game I love.
Question: You've hit cleanup most of this season, right between Griffey and Dunn. You did it for part of last season as well. What's that like for you?
Answer: I'm not a typical cleanup hitter. But I like hitting cleanup, I really do. Hitting fourth, I feel like I'm a hitter with power, not a power hitter. I have 12 home runs. That's more than I had at this time last year (when he finished with 30). My average (.269) is not up there, but my other stats are better than they were last year at this time.
Question: What's the biggest difference hitting cleanup?
Answer: I just get pitched differently. When you hit between the power guys, you get more breaking balls. Those guys don't have much speed. (Opponents) don't have to worry about Griffey stealing bases. They throw more curveballs to me, more sliders, more breaking pitches. It's cool. I can hit those pitches. I did it last year.
Question: You signed a four-year, $27 million on contract on Feb. 15. How much will that change you?
Answer: I'm still hungry. I can't change. I'm going to be the same guy. I'm still young. I still have things to prove. I'm trying to show everyone that I'm the best all-around second baseman in baseball right now.
The best hitting second baseman is Chase Utley. The best fielding second baseman ... I have no Gold Gloves, so that has to go my boy O-Dog (Orlando Hudson). But when you put everything together, I feel like I'm the second baseman in baseball.
Question: What it's like playing for Dusty Baker?
Answer: He's like a father figure to me. He knows the game of baseball. He knows hitting. He knows when to run. He knows everything.
I didn't really know what to expect. In the beginning, we were trying to feel him out, see how he reacts. But right now, everyone on the team is starting to get used to him. You can start to tell that we're jelling. And I think we're going to start going off.
Question: So how good are the Reds?
Answer: Let me tell you this: I never said things about the teams we had before — other than 2006. In '06, I thought we should have made the playoffs. We were the team to beat. We were in first place (or the wild-card lead) until almost September.
Last year I didn't say anything. I knew we had holes. This year, if we just worry about ourselves — not worry about the Cubs or anyone else ahead of us — we're going to make the playoffs. We're that good.
We've got good players, good chemistry. And once we can make the playoffs, I know we can bring a championship to Cincinnati. That's just me being real.